The shocking accident that took the life of Indy Racer Dan Wheldon on the Las Vegas Motor Speedway Sunday is already being called one of the most spectacular crashes in the history of motor sports. The 15 car smash-up caused little human damage except of course to Dan Wheldon. The coroner's report released yesterday stated what was obvious: Wheldon died of massive blunt force injuries to the head. These no doubt occurred when he hit the catch fence.
I haven't followed auto racing closely since I was a child growing up in the 70s watching ABC televise the big races and watching the Speed Racer cartoon series. Then it was all about the Indy racers--Foyt, Unser, Allison, Andretti, and Rutherford. Nascar was still pretty much of a regional phenomenon and one would hear a lot about Richard Petty and that was it. But then as now, the death crashes were always a source of incredible fascination for people.
The first I can remember was the 1973 Indianapolis 500, which was was marred by 3 deaths--Art Pollard and the young Californian Swede Savage. He was an up and coming racer who was very different than the rednecks who dominated American motor sports. He looked more like a movie star. At Indy, on lap 58, turn number 4, what many longtime Indy observers still call the single most spectacular crash in the history of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway transpired as Savage's car exploded after hitting an angled wall head-on. Savage's injuries were serious but he was expected to survive, however a bad plasma transfusion gave him hepatitis B and he died 33 days later of liver failure. A young crew member of a teammate rushed onto the track but was struck and killed instantly by a fire truck.
Hemmingway said famously "Auto racing, bull fighting and mountain climbing are the only real sports...all others are games." That is what makes auto racing so different than all the others. After Savage there was Gordon Smiley, Senna, Earnhardt and tens of others. It is why so many are fascinated. Nascar is the second most popular spectator sport in the United States. But most casual sports fans don't follow auto racing and only take notice of the sport when tragedy strikes. The last time I watched a lot of auto racing coverage was when Earnhardt crashed into the wall at Daytona in 2001.
When I was changing channels on Sunday I noticed the race on ABC because the announcers were speaking in hushed tones, so I knew something bad had happened. It wasn't until about 35 minutes later that they announced that Wheldon had died and ABC started to show what exactly had happened. The wonder of it all is that no one else was seriously injured. Sunday night I spent about an hour and a half on you tube watching as many final crashes as i could. Race car drivers are a different lot. They are not the same as most of us. I know you are supposed to feel a little sullied to watch these things. But to me, they are heroic. These men (and now women) who live to race and in the process risk everything.